February 09, 2008

Motivating the Unmotivated Student: Fear of Tortillas and Cheap Meat

I don't usually read PhD Comics, but LL told me about this one and it got me thinking. The scary part, perhaps, is that Cecilia's freind may be onto something here.

I teach the lab section in an introductory biology course. "Introductory," in academic vernacular, often means "most students taking this course are not majors and are only here because they have to fulfill a requirement." Most of my students fall into that category; they have to take a science class as part of getting a liberal arts degree and they so happened to find an opening in biology (as opposed, I guess, to finding their biological openings — something I do not encourage them to do in class). As someone who teaches in that situation and who has been responsible for grading various exams and assignments, I am painfully aware that a lot of my students would rather be doing almost anything else short of having a root canal or being probed by extraterrestrials.

I can get past the Boredom Barrier with some of those students by tying the material to fun aspects of everyday life. Of course, it's easier to figure out how to do that with some topics than others. When the subject matter involves reproduction or fermentation, it's easy. Few things hold more interest to a first or second year undergraduate student than sex and liquor. When the topic is, say, photosynthesis, it's not so easy. We're talking about vegetables in that case. Many of these kids are away from home for the first time and, concurrently, it's the first time they don't have to think about, let alone eat, their veggies. Let's face it, thinking about why string beans are green just isn't that interesting if you don't already have a deep interest in the wonderful world of how life works and where it came from.

Cecilia's friend has come up with an interesting solution as to how to motivate completely unmotivated students, though. Stapling an application for a job at Taco Bell to those exams and assignments earning low scores inspires one of humanity's greatest motivations — fear. If you don't pass biology, you don't fulfill that requirement. If you don't fulfill the requirement, you don't get a degree. If you don't get a degree, well, you can haz cheezburgers or, in this case, a Grilled Stuft Burrito which, taxonomically speaking, shares a common ancestor with the cheeseburger. See how I worked a biological concept in there? It's all good.

Unless, of course, you're the guy in the paper hat making Stuft Burritos. I feel safe in saying that none of the students in Intro Bio aspire to a career involving tortillas and cheap meat.

I wonder if Taco Bell will let me take away a big stack of applications for use throughout the semester...

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